Canberra refugee Mustafa Jawadi shares story of freedom in new documentary
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Canberra refugee Mustafa Jawadi shares story of freedom in new documentary

Mustafa Jawadi was just seven years old when his family fled war-torn Afghanistan, eventually smuggled by boat towards Australia.

The boat they were shuffled on to caught fire and sank. Two people died. Mr Jawadi's family then spent three years detained on Nauru.

Documentary director Steve Thomas with Canberra mechanic and former refugee Mustafa Jawadi.

Documentary director Steve Thomas with Canberra mechanic and former refugee Mustafa Jawadi.

Photo: Elesa Kurtz

It was only when a fellow refugee sewed his lips together, sparking a broader hunger strike across the detention centre, that their case was reopened and the family moved to Canberra.

Today, the 24-year-old hopes sharing his story in documentary feature film Freedom Stories helps viewers better understand the plight of refugees settling in Australia.

Director Steve Thomas says the film, which screens in the capital Saturday afternoon as part of the Canberra International Film Festival, is not an overtly political film.

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"The purpose of the film certainly is to influence people's opinions and to enable former asylum seekers to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories, because theirs are the voices that are missing in the debate," he said.

"I wanted to make a human film and allow audiences to have this experience themselves and make up their own minds."

Mr Jawadi's story is one of seizing opportunity after a rough beginning: "once you're at the bottom, the only way is up – and I've been at the bottom".

When his parents fled Afghanistan, Australia was accepting refugees. But the family didn't have the family ties or English skills necessary to be eligible.

Mr Jawadi's family spent two months in Indonesia before setting sail for Australia. They didn't realise what "people smuggling" involved.

"We didn't know what was involved. We didn't know you had to go by boat or anything like that," Mr Jawadi said.

After eight days they were intercepted by the Australia navy who eventually decided to take the group to Christmas Island.

"The [navy] boat came in alongside of us. They gave us a picture of Australia with a cross over it, saying, 'You're not allowed in Australia'. Some people could speak English, someone screamed out, 'They're going to take us back on this boat'," he said.

"People started panicking and the captain, I guess, accelerated the boat to go faster but you could hear the wood start separating. All of a sudden I just see this black smoke coming from behind the boat.

"Everyone started jumping out because it was sinking. Two women died tragically. We just heard everyone crying."

After a couple months on Christmas Island, Mr Jawadi's family spent the rest of their three-year detention on Nauru, where his younger brother was born.

"It was basically just eat and sleep," he said. "Some people started exercising. Some people didn't. Some people harmed themselves. Eventually it gets to you."

After the hunger strike, detainees were finally allowed a lawyer and accepted as genuine asylum seekers, first on temporary protection visas and then as citizens.

"I just saw my mum pour out [of the interview room] crying," he said.

The journey didn't end when Mr Jawadi arrived in Canberra, where he completed school and now works as a mechanic at CWC Autos.

"The start was hard, very, very hard, especially going through school and making new friends, not knowing the language perfectly," he said.

"I just made friends – it got easier and easier.

"I got the jokes around school, 'Oh, watch out, he's carrying his bag' and all that. At the start I took it serious but later on thought, 'It's just jokes, they don't have a meaning behind it' – it's just the way it is, mum jokes and all that."

Mr Jawadi was in Europe recently where he saw some of the region's refugee crisis unfold.

"People are standing at train stations, buying them [refugees] tickets, helping them with maps ... they see a future," he said.

"Australia is very strict."

He hopes his appearance in Freedom Stories shows viewers what he has accomplished as an Australian citizen contributing to the country's economy.

"Some people think we just come here and get on the dole, on Centrelink," he said.

"People might struggle in the first year picking up the language [but by] the second year they start working. We come from a background where we work hard to become someone. We see this as an opportunity, a higher opportunity to get somewhere, so we use it."

Freedom Stories will be screened at the National Film and Sound Archive at 3pm Saturday as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.

Emma Kelly

Emma Kelly is Canberra Times reporter.

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